- Interview by
- Robbie Nelson
On June 23, New Yorkers will go to the polls to vote in their state’s primary elections, and many voters in New York City will have the opportunity to cast their ballots for outspoken socialist organizers. In addition to incumbents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York state senator Julia Salazar, there are five socialist challengers backed by New York City DSA running for state and national office.
One of those candidates is Jabari Brisport, who is campaigning for the New York State Senate seat in District 25. The seat is open, and Brisport’s main opponent, Tremaine Wright, is a current State Assembly member with close ties to the relatively conservative Democratic establishment in Brooklyn. That, of course, goes along with taking money from the likes of real estate lobbyists and a billionaire-funded charter school PAC.
Brisport, on the other hand, is a public school teacher who advocates rent control, a homes guarantee, police defunding, fully funded public education, and a charter school moratorium; in short, a full-throated and direct socialist challenge to business-as-usual Brooklyn machine politics.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Brisport’s experience in political life has straddled the worlds of electoral politics and on-the-ground movement building. Having joined Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) during its upsurge in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, he has been organizing as an open socialist since then. In 2017, he ran a campaign to challenge a powerful incumbent for a City Council seat, and he has been an active participant in a wide array of movements as well as New York City DSA. Most recently, he has been playing a frontline role in the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising, as well as working as a rank-and-file teacher and unionist in the New York City public school system.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience over the last several weeks? Between teaching middle schoolers during a pandemic, being on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and entering electoral campaign crunch time, I imagine you’ve been very busy.
This is unlike anything I have ever done in my entire life, but really that’s just a reflection of the fact that the United States has never gone through anything quite like this current moment. I’ve heard someone give a good description of living in this moment as a mixture of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and also the social upheavals of the 1960s, all rolled into one. It’s been quite an experience to participate in all of this. So my team and our community are all doing our best to cope with rapidly changing situations.
To be honest, my students are struggling. They were struggling going into distance learning and worried about the pandemic, and now they’re struggling even more because most of my students are black, and many are scared. When we did a debrief about the protests, one of my students said, “Mr Brisport, I’m scared that when real school starts again, and I have to take the subway, a cop will pull me aside and accuse me of having a gun.”
And that’s a really disturbing thing to hear an eleven-year-old boy say, because in my ideal world, he would just be talking about sports or music or pro wrestling or whatever kids are enjoying these days. But that’s his fear right now.
On top of all that, Election Day is coming up quickly, and we are all doing our best to keep our heads on our shoulders. This is my second campaign, so I know that this is the time when everyone’s phones start exploding, and everyone comes out wanting to help. It’s lovely and powerful, but it’s also a challenge to connect volunteers with roles in the campaign at such a quick pace.
Taking a step back, can you tell me a little bit about how you got into political organizing?
I actually came to my political organizing through identity issues — before I came to class struggle. My first political experiences were fighting for same-sex marriage as a queer man. I was involved in a big fight to get a same-sex marriage bill passed through the New York State Senate — which I’m now running to be part of. The first attempt in 2009 failed, and it really hurt to be seen as a second-class citizen, but we redoubled and fought again. And then in 2011, we won same-sex marriage in New York.
Starting a couple years later, I began to get more radicalized by the Black Lives Matter movement, because, for me, it was no longer an issue just of getting to marry the person I love, but about the fact that I could, at any point, be shot and killed by a police officer.
When I was nineteen, an undercover police officer put a gun to my face. I was with a friend, and we were walking, and he just grabbed my friend because he “matched the description” of a drug dealer, which was just “white guy with a hoodie.” The undercover officer just grabbed him from nowhere, never showed a badge, never read him any rights, never even identified himself as police. When I started telling them that, he put a gun to my face for “getting loud with him.”
So when the Black Lives Matter movement came, this fear of becoming the next hashtag really got to me. It really politicized me to be up in the streets marching and making demands.
Then, in 2016, when Bernie Sanders ran for and lost the Democratic primary, I started looking more into democratic socialism. It was my thinking on race, actually, that helped me come out of the closet as a socialist. I was in the shower one day, thinking about slavery and how, in the end, it was really just linked to capitalism. Black people were brought here as literal capital, had price tags slapped on them and sold on markets, treated as commodities and were, in turn, used to create commodities. Racism has been tied into capitalism from the very beginning, even after slavery with sharecropping and Jim Crow, redlining, policing. All of these systems have been about turning a profit on the backs of black people.
And that really pushed me to explore more class analysis and look at how capitalism and racism were so intertwined, you couldn’t really get rid of one without the other.
I’m curious to hear how your experience as a public school teacher in New York City has informed both your concrete platform and your broader political vision.
You can see from such a visceral, on-the-ground perspective all the ways in which the current political system fails our students.
I have one girl who is tired all the time in class, and when I check in, it’s because she was up late because she had to sleep at her auntie’s house, or at her grandma’s. It’s obvious that she doesn’t have a secure place to sleep every right. And how can she learn when she doesn’t have her basic needs met?
Another student of mine was struggling, and then one day just stopped showing up. I got an email from his mom a few days later saying they had to move abruptly to Long Island because they were evicted. That really broke my heart and made me angry — this system does not do enough for our students.
And then there’s the typical teacher stuff: being low on supplies, not having enough money for textbooks for everyone, and we’re out of paper on day two. So, you know, us teachers are digging through our pockets to help. But then stuff just comes up that’s beyond my scope as a teacher. When my sixth-grade student told me he’s afraid of cops accusing him of having a gun, it was overwhelming.
This is all because of misplaced priorities in our schools, in our society, the fact that we don’t invest in housing and other essential services as human rights. We have money for cops and we don’t have money for social workers or nurses or other health professionals, you know, the things our communities actually need. It’s so visceral, these are children, and it can be heartbreaking. And it just makes me want to fight so much harder.
Obviously, we are in the midst of an uprising across this country and across the world in defense of black lives, and against police and state repression. What are your thoughts on the DefundNYPD campaign and on similar campaigns to defund local police departments and shift money toward education, health care, and social services?
I love the DefundNYPD campaign right now. But I want to make sure that we can solidify the narrative over what “defunding” means. It literally means taking funds away, it does not mean the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign. There’s nothing technically wrong with some of those reforms, but they’re just not going to do the job. It’s not about better management or training of police, it’s about taking away money and power from them.
There’s this big pot of money, the $6 billion NYPD budget that can be redirected, and, of course, a state budget where funds could be redirected into social services that also give people stability.
And I really appreciate hearing more and more people talking about what police abolition could actually look like. It’s becoming much more prevalent, and people are understanding the negative role police play in society.
There are many white, wealthy suburbs and communities where police are not just patrolling the streets or do not hang out on the corner in case something is quote-unquote “wrong.” They don’t knock on doors in the middle of the night to check and make sure you are not a drug dealer, and they definitely don’t shoot you in your head while you are sleeping at home. We can start to think about abolition in these ways.
When people are invested deeply in making sure that every single person has a home, has a job, has health care, and that their kids have access to good education, that’s where public safety and security comes from. Everyone, including wealthy white people, knows in the back of their minds where public safety comes from. It comes from having your basic needs met and having a community where people feel like they can take care of each other and not always being on the verge of crisis. So why can’t everybody have that?
And, of course, the crisis of racialized police violence is not the only major crisis we face right now. What kinds of socialist policies are you advocating for to address the public health impacts and the looming economic depression triggered by the coronavirus pandemic?
In the immediate sense, we need to push back against any and all cuts to education, health care, and basic social services. People are struggling right now, and the last thing we need to do is enact austerity on things like Medicaid or anything that working-class people rely on.
The flip side is to push for greater taxes on the wealthy. Governors will complain of tax revenue going down, but there is so much money out there that we need to fight for. The billionaires have gotten even richer during this pandemic. There is money there that can be put into our communities, but we need to fight for it.
There is an opportunity for us to directly say, right now, that certain people in society are harming the rest of us by hoarding their wealth. People are literally dying right now because billionaires are using this unprecedented disaster to enrich themselves. They are not doing the humane thing, which would be sharing that wealth.
More specifically, in the state legislature, there are some concrete pieces of legislation that need to be passed immediately. First and foremost is rent cancellation. In Ithaca, New York, they recently canceled rent, so we have a precedent. We also obviously need to have good cause eviction. We need to start expanding and extending those protections, especially if we are able to cancel mortgages. If you cancel rent, cancel mortgages, and cancel utilities during this crisis, that will go a long way toward helping people survive. Everyone should support this program unless you are a staunch capitalist who wants to make sure you get your returns on investment.
Finally, this crisis has really exposed the danger of our prisons, especially for public health. Coronavirus has exploded in our jails and detention facilities, so we need to push for things like releasing aging people, decriminalizing sex work, decriminalizing drug possession, legalizing marijuana, abolishing mandatory minimums, and do everything we can to reduce incarceration levels. We need to use this pandemic to fundamentally reevaluate how we structure our society.
The DSA national convention last summer passed a “Class-Struggle Electoral Strategy.” What does it mean to you to be a class-struggle candidate, and what would it mean to be a class-struggle elected official?
It’s socialists — class-struggle candidates — who are not afraid to name the forces that we are up against. We have to claim, explicitly and repeatedly, that there is an extremely wealthy class in our society that does not contribute to the greater good, and they have enormous influence over our politics and our society. So we are not afraid to name our enemies and push against them.
The main difference between a socialist candidate and a “progressive” is that we socialists insist on fundamental changes and not technocratic solutions. One big distinction between my campaign and one of my opponents, who is a self-described “progressive,” is that his solution on housing for months has been “we need to end tax abatements, which go to luxury developers.” Which, like, is true, and is a fine policy.
But it’s not an actual, structural solution. As socialists, we ultimately understand that if we want to end the housing crisis, we need to tax the rich and de-commodify housing. It’s very easy to make a technocratic solution that doesn’t address the root of the problem and then seem like you’re very well versed on the topic. At the end of the day, it has to do with how we name our enemies and how we take power back from them.
I’m also really excited about NYC-DSA’s whole slate of class-struggle candidates! We have me, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, and Samelys López. We’ve released joint platforms, done joint videos, press statements, organizing events, and raised money jointly. We have joint literature and campaign materials.
This is a collaboration of socialist candidates that, I think, has never been seen before, or at least for a very long time. If we really believe in socialism and having working people coming together, collaborating and collectively owning things, that has to be demonstrated in our political process. I’m so honored to be part of this group, and hopefully we will bring in new socialist elected officials in coming years.
Having a large and collaborative slate lets socialists share resources and skills, and bring a bigger and more unified message. And there’s power in numbers: having Julia Salazar out there saying we need to have rent control or defund the police, that’s amazing and has helped change the conversation. Imagine what it will be like when a slate of six or seven elected officials can organize in our communities and really push the agenda. When socialists win elections, it helps amplify and give mass credibility to the ideas brought forward by our movements.